International Terrorism

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:30 pm on 18th October 2001.

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Photo of Baroness Williams of Crosby Baroness Williams of Crosby Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords 6:30 pm, 18th October 2001

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the Government on being so accountable to Parliament and on consistently allowing another opportunity for discussion of this continuing crisis. We are grateful to them and I am sure that the whole House appreciates the time that has been made available for these important debates.

I should like to follow what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, with regard to the paper provided by the Foreign Secretary. It is extremely helpful. I shall make two comments on it. First, the battle to destroy the terrorist network that supports Osama bin Laden could be a very long business indeed. The Minister made that point clearly. It is not easy to track down even the leader of a terrorist group. Furthermore, the spores of this terrorism--to use a metaphor from the anthrax threat--have spread throughout almost the whole of the civilised world.

Just before I came into the Chamber for our debate, the latest piece of news suggested that an anthrax outbreak has taken place in Kenya. One can say now that continent after continent is being caught up. I recognise that we do not yet know who is responsible for causing these attacks, but we do know that the entire world is moving into an area of deep uncertainty in which we do not quite know where the enemy is to be found, or even exactly who is the enemy. That is a different form of warfare from that which any of us has experienced in the whole of our lives. That is what will make it particularly hard for the Government to sustain public support over a long period of time. Those of us who recognise and support what they are trying to do are aware of the difficulty.

Secondly, efforts are now concentrating more closely on replacing the Taliban government. Understandably, that is a tangible and probably relatively more achievable goal. It may well be that developments over the coming few days--although I am in no position to forecast what those might be--will offer some indications that very great tensions are developing within the Taliban coalition. Rumours and reports are now circulating that senior members are now beginning to break away and that junior members are starting to realise that there may be other loyalties that are more attractive to them than the Taliban.

In that context, and without wishing to embarrass the Government in any way, perhaps I may take up an aspect of a theme raised by the noble Lord, Lord Howell. I hope that the Government can assure the House that, at least for the time being, our targets will remain clearly focused on those two ends and their associated aims. I say that because I have been somewhat disturbed by suggestions that certain elements within our own coalition would like to widen the goals of the objective without clear evidence that that would be a sensible or constructive course. I should like to draw the Minister's attention to a disturbing article which appeared on 12th October in the New York Times. It reported that a letter sent by Mr Negroponte, the new US Ambassador to the United Nations, to the Security Council suggesting a widening of the objectives of this war had not been seen by the Secretary of State. If that is the case, that is a very disturbing report.

I turn now to the question of what kind of administration might succeed the Taliban. Like the noble Lord, Lord Howell, I am delighted to hear that Mr Cooper is to be associated with that effort. Perhaps I may suggest that, as well as considering the importance of representing the different tribal peoples of Afghanistan--many Members of the House with greater historical knowledge of that country are aware of how profoundly fragmented along tribal lines it is--Mr Cooper should be invited by our Minister to look at how the non-governmental organisations in Afghanistan might be brought into some kind of transitional council. Furthermore, the Minister will not be surprised to learn that, among others, I have in mind those struggling organisations which represent women in Afghanistan. They have not been included in or offered any kind of role in any government of that country since the days of the former king, who appointed several women Ministers to his administration.

Afghanistan is a country steeped in hatred and blood. It is extremely important that we hear a voice other than that of the warrior tradition bent on revenge and retaliation which has characterised the country for a period of 70 to 80 years. That means that we must look for voices in the population other than those which have traditionally represented the governments of Afghanistan. However, I fear that the traditional voices will dominate any durbar or council of the tribes. While obviously those voices must be heard, other currently suppressed voices need to be heard as well.

Like the Minister, I shall address the humanitarian crisis. None of us needs to underline how desperate the situation is. The Minister has made it plain. Let me also say that we on these Benches fully recognise the obstructions put in place by the Taliban--whether official or unofficial, I do not know. Those include attempts to stop and attack convoys, harass the drivers and so forth. But we would be less than honest if we did not recognise that one of the main reasons why the truck drivers are reluctant to enter Afghanistan--many reports to this effect have been filed by the various aid organisations--is that, like us, they are human beings and understandably they are frightened of being strafed, bombed or burned. It would not matter much which side committed the attack.

Yesterday in the other place, my right honourable friend the Leader of the Liberal Democrats raised the question of whether we had carefully explored the possibility of establishing demilitarised corridors through what is largely but not entirely Northern Alliance-held territory. The Prime Minister was kind enough to give the query a reasonably affirmative response. Perhaps the Minister can say a little more about that proposal, because if the Taliban does not implode quickly, we all know that we shall encounter the desperate situation of the winter closing in. That will affect at least 1.5 million people who do not have enough food to sustain them through to next spring.

In that context, we all know that it is absolutely vital to retain a coalition of people of many different races and religions. That coalition will be profoundly affected by whether all those people believe that the twin track of the Government's policy, incorporating the humanitarian arm, is being pursued as assiduously as possible.

I should like to raise a question which has not received much attention during our debates. Here I declare an interest as a member of the board of the International Crisis Group. Yesterday I met a team which has just returned from Central Asia. I am not sure that many of us are aware of just how extraordinarily fragile is the situation in that region. A significant and important base for aircraft and other military units has been established in Uzbekistan, which is a majority Muslim country. It has a relatively small, rather weak fundamentalist Islamic group called the UMI. Until now that group has not caused any serious trouble because it is relatively small, but there is a considerable danger that, in the course of bringing into Uzbekistan more military equipment, we may begin to create an active fundamentalist movement, which has not existed so far.

A second point I should like to make in the context of Central Asia is this. They, too, have a desperate need for support and food. The International Crisis Group team, which I believe is a well-respected and professional organisation, estimates that around half a million Uzbeks are fleeing from the drought-ridden Aral Sea for lack of anything to eat. About the same number of people in Tajikistan are already filling the refugee camps there. I hate to add to the Government's burdens, but the truth of the matter is that, as well as Afghanistan, as well as the refugee camps in Pakistan, that fragile area of Central Asia on which we now depend for strategic reasons is itself moving very close to a humanitarian crisis.

I do not wish to delay the House, but there are a couple of other points I want to raise. The first point may not immediately seem relevant, although I believe it to be profoundly relevant. We have not talked a great deal about the way in which the Taliban is fundamentally financed by drug trade interests, although the Minister did refer to the issue on one or two occasions during the early stages of the crisis. Those drug trade interests carry on into the countries bordering Afghanistan to the west. They are not exclusive to Afghanistan.

In our efforts to root out terrorism, paradoxically we are also engaged in the effort to root out the drug trade. That is why the Minister's remarks about the extreme importance of strengthening the whole of our legislative, financial and supervisory structure go well beyond terrorism itself--terrible though that is--to another of the scourges which today confront the human race. They all hang together.

I turn now to the final part of the Minister's remarks and those of the noble Lord, Lord Howell, which concerned the absolutely vital necessity of tackling not only the symptoms but also the causes of terrorism. We have a great deal to teach in this respect from our own experience of Northern Ireland. I do not differ from the noble Lord, Lord Howell, in recognising that we have had our own terrorist problem and that in the Real IRA we still have a terrorist problem--although, thank God, smaller than it was. But, for all its weaknesses and all its qualifications, the hard and rocky road of the Good Friday agreement is the only way towards a political solution.

That brings me to one comment I wish to make on the Middle East. I fully share the condemnation of the House and many others of the unacceptable assassination of Minister Ze'evi. However, it is also true that to pursue a peace process which becomes hostage to any act of terrorism is to encourage the most extreme elements to produce such acts of terrorism. I believe that the consistent position of Prime Minister Sharon of breaking off the peace process every time there is a terrorist outrage simply puts the peace process in the hands of those who have the least conscience, the least wisdom and the least commitment to a peaceful outcome.

Lastly among the causes of terrorism, we have to address the profound inequalities in the world. This morning I was talking to no less a figure than Peter Sutherland, the former secretary-general of the World Trade Organisation and now the chairman of Goldman Sachs--not a person one would expect to say, loudly and clearly, that there must be a much more generous division of resources by the rich world; a much more generous attitude towards overseas aid; and a much greater willingness to accept a wider decision-making structure than the G7, which would include the needs of large and significant developing countries on behalf of the third world. Sooner or later we shall have to address the profound disformities in our own world if we are to produce at any time a long-term answer to some of the problems that today trouble us.